NY Times reporter Stevenson continued to mischaracterize Iraq intelligence debate


In a series of articles reporting on President Bush's increasingly aggressive responses to accusations that his administration manipulated intelligence in the buildup to the Iraq war, New York Times reporter Richard W. Stevenson has consistently mischaracterized the debate between Democrats and the Bush administration. Stevenson twice uncritically repeated the administration's fallacious argument that Democrats, having seen the "same intelligence" as everyone else, supported the war in Iraq. In his most recent article, published on November 15, Stevenson and co-author Douglas Jehl, also a Times reporter, went so far as to reformulate the White House's defense by excising the false "same intelligence" claim upon which it is based.

Rather than referring to Bush's first "line of defense" as the claim that Democrats had the same intelligence, Stevenson and Jehl now refer to it as the claim that Democrats were expressing the same concerns about Saddam Hussein. Given the mounting evidence that Democrats -- and, indeed, the entire U.S. Congress -- were not privy to the same intelligence as the administration, the fact that Democrats were expressing some of the same concerns about Hussein as the administration is irrelevant to the question of whether the Bush administration misled the country in its case for war.

In his November 11 Veterans Day speech at Pennsylvania's Tobyhanna Army Depot, Bush claimed that Democrats' support for the ouster of Saddam Hussein was based on the same intelligence available to the White House:

BUSH: Some Democrats and anti-war critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people about why we went to war. These critics are fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments related to Iraq's weapons programs. They also know that intelligence agencies from around the world agreed with our assessment of Saddam Hussein. They know the United Nations passed more than a dozen resolutions, citing his development and possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Many of these critics supported my opponent during the last election, who explained his position to support the resolution in the Congress this way: "When I vote to give the president of the United States the authority to use force, if necessary, to disarm Saddam Hussein, it is because I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a threat and a grave threat to our security." That's why more than 100 Democrats in the House and the Senate, who had access to the same intelligence, voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power.

In a November 12 Washington Post article, staff writers Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank directly addressed the administration's claim that the Democratic critics in Congress had the "same intelligence" as Congress: "Bush and his aides had access to much more voluminous intelligence information than did lawmakers, who were dependent on the administration to provide the material." Media Matters for America has noted some of the extensive, and mounting, evidence that the Bush administration had access to far more intelligence than it provided Congress.

In their November 15 Times article, Stevenson and Jehl reformulated the White House's response to the Democrats, reporting that one of Bush's "two main lines of defense" is "asserting that many Democrats saw the same threat from Iraq as the administration did." Later in the article, they elaborated: "The White House is right that many Democrats, including some of the same senators who are now criticizing Mr. Bush most vociferously over the war, expressed concerns about Iraq's weapons programs in the months and years before the invasion." By re-characterizing the first Bush "line of defense" -- from "they had the same intelligence we did" to "they expressed [similar] concerns" -- Stevenson and Jehl transformed a Bush falsehood into a true statement that is nonetheless irrelevant to the central question (and the central Democratic accusation to which Bush is responding) of whether Bush misled the country into war. Stevenson and Jehl provided significant discussion of Democratic accusations that Bush administration officials "exaggerated" the threat posed by Iraq prior to the March 2003 invasion, but the writers omitted reference to mounting evidence that the Bush administration withheld intelligence from members of Congress.

The November 15 article is the third since November 11 in which Stevenson has mischaracterized the Iraq intelligence debate. In a November 11 Times article, he offered a preview of Bush's speech: "President Bush is beginning a new effort to shore up his credibility and cast his critics as hypocrites." Later in the article, Stevenson reported: "The White House's effort to stop the erosion [of public opinion] is centered on defining the president's critics as Democrats who voted for the war based on the same intelligence Mr. Bush saw but have switched positions, often under pressure from their party's left wing." Rather than challenging the administration's false argument, Stevenson went on to quote Stephen J. Hadley, Bush's national security adviser:

"I point out that some of the critics today believed themselves in 2002 that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction," Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, said Thursday at a news briefing. "They stated that belief, and they voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq because they believed Saddam Hussein posed a dangerous threat to the American people. For those critics to ignore their own past statements, exposes the hollowness of their current attacks."

On November 12, Stevenson again uncritically parroted the White House response to Democratic accusations: "In his speech, Mr. Bush asserted that Democrats as well as Republicans believed before the invasion in 2003 that Saddam Hussein possessed banned weapons, a conclusion, he said, that was shared by the United Nations. He resisted any implication that his administration had deliberately distorted the available intelligence, and said that the resolution authorizing the use of force had been supported by more than 100 Democrats in the House and Senate based on the same information available to the White House."

From Stevenson's November 15 Times article:

With Mr. Bush politically weakened, the Democrats emboldened and public support for the war ebbing, the White House is building two main lines of defense. It is asserting that many Democrats saw the same threat from Iraq as the administration did. And it is pointing to two government studies that it says found no evidence that prewar intelligence, while admittedly flawed, had been twisted by political pressure.

The first is giving the White House some political protection, though not enough to deter Democratic attacks. The second addresses only part of the issue, because neither study directly addressed the broader question: whether the administration presented that intelligence to Congress, the nation and the world in a way that overstated what the intelligence said about the threat posed by Mr. Hussein's weapons programs and any links to terrorism.

The White House is right that many Democrats, including some of the same senators who are now criticizing Mr. Bush most vociferously over the war, expressed concerns about Iraq's weapons programs in the months and years before the invasion. When the resolution authorizing force came up in October 2002, 29 Democrats in the Senate and 81 in the House voted in favor, versus 21 in the Senate and 126 in the House who voted against it.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, Intelligence, War in Iraq
Prewar Intelligence/WMD
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